In a small, largely abandoned village along the coast in Belgium, the walls are covered in graffiti. What began as an effort by the few remaining locals to turn the town of Doel from a neglected company town into an artists’ colony has become something else entirely. The town now receives several thousand tourists annually, gawking at the bizarre setting. But they also take in many more vandals who are eager to exploit the obvious lack of regulations and absence of police.
I’ve spent a lot of time practicing the art of seeing graffiti. After a few years, my eye is now automatically able to seek out those sweet spots on buildings or signs where graffiti ought to be—and in the right parts of town, it usually is. I’m good, but there are still times that graffiti, or something pretending to be graffiti, will surprise me.
At its most basic, "tagging" is the act of writing your name on a wall, on a newspaper stand, on a lamp post, or, let’s be honest, anything else that doesn’t belong to you.
The medium doesn’t particularly matter: marker or spray paint will do. In a pinch, and on the right surface, maybe even a ballpoint pen. The point is to put your mark where it wasn’t before, and to put it in a place where other people will see it.
And, like everything else in graffiti, the most important point is to do it with style.
In the late 1940s, a Midwestern salesman named Edward Seymour was looking for a better way to demonstrate his line of aluminum radiator paint to prospective buyers. Seymour and his wife hit upon the idea of combining the paint with a can of propellant, so they could spray the paint quickly onto a radiator’s surface and not have to spend the time using more tedious methods.
The idea of putting a propellant and something else into a can wasn’t new. Bug bombs specifically targeting malaria-infected mosquitoes were used in the Pacific during World War II.
Gangs have been writing graffiti since at least the early 20th century, and the reasons have remained remarkably stable: identifying turf boundaries, roll calls to identify gang members, and enacting conflict with rival gangs.
This type of graffiti differs dramatically from the general kind of graffiti we’ve talked about so far, most notably in the distinct lack of style, which is much to the chagrin of many dedicated graffiti writers.
Graffiti is always a political act, whether overtly or accidentally. The very nature of vandalism requires some kind of confrontation between a disruptive actor and established structures of the status quo.
While throwing a brick through a window is also vandalism, it differs from graffiti in that it is a subtractive form of vandalism—that window is no longer there—while graffiti is inherently additive: structures become augmented with new political or social meaning.
What do skateboarders, graffiti artists and French post-structuralists have in common?
Let’s start with the skateboarder. The sport that essentially began as a land-based substitute for surfing in the late 1940s has moved from empty pools and the sidewalks of Venice Beach, to enclosed parks built by cities, to huge stadiums where corporations plaster their names on every fun box, half-pipe and hand-rail available.